There are times when a little attention is a good thing, and times when it’s definitely not. The latter is most certainly the case right now for the burgeoning community of Spanish Fort. The reason is disturbing, to say the least.
A 16-year-old female, reportedly intoxicated and passed out at an open house party hosted by a 58-year-old woman, was allegedly raped by an 18-year-old starting player on the Spanish Fort High School football team. Even more disconcerting, though, is the fact that quite a few students and fellow athletes publicly showed support for the defendant at a football game following his arrest.
News outlets throughout the state carried the story and quickly, it spread across the country, from Louisiana to New York. Eventually it was picked up by one of Britain’s biggest news outlets, The Daily Mail, giving the incident international attention. Spanish Fort is in the media crosshairs.
Unfortunately, the major themes of this story have become a bit too familiar in our society — the toxic and dangerous combination of young people and copious amounts of alcohol, along with the irresponsible facilitation by adults of illicit behavior by youths. As has happened in the past, this dangerous mixture has brought about tragedy that will affect lives far beyond the media lifecycle of this story.
On the one hand, there is an 18-year-old alleged perpetrator, Cameron Harrison, who, if eventually found guilty, could possibly bear the weight of his actions for the rest of his life by forever being known as a sex offender. It’s not just the time in prison he would have to face if found guilty by a jury of his peers, but, equally, the deserved shame of a label that he could possibly never rid himself of.
Then there’s the female victim. According to a police affidavit, there is video evidence of her being carried to an upstairs bedroom after passing out from too much drinking. According to prosecutors, at some point afterwards, Harrison entered the room and raped her as she lay there unconscious. The victim woke up with physical pain in her vaginal area. The alleged rape took place that night, yet the assault to her psyche for reporting the incident appears to be unending.
In what has turned out to be one of the most perplexing and mind-boggling aspects of this story, the victim’s own peer group has turned upon her and demonstrated more support for the alleged perpetrator than for her. At a football game following Cameron’s arrest, Spanish Fort quarterback, Tyler Johnston, had a towel hanging from his uniform with the number “4” on it (Cameron’s jersey number). Another teammate had a towel that read “Doing it 4 my boy Cam.” Maybe the coaches were heavily preoccupied with game planning and management and missed these shows of support for Cameron, but it was without doubt a grievous oversight on their behalf.
It wasn’t just some of the players supporting him, either. Some students in the stands wore jerseys with the number “4” written on them or “4” written on their wrists. There was even a big banner that hung in the stands proclaiming “Toros 4ever.” The victim has been berated and harassed on social media, and reported being seen in the hallways of the school in utter tears.
In an interview, Chandra Brown, executive director of Lifelines Counseling Services, and Shawna Mayo, program coordinator for the Rape Crisis Center, a division of Lifelines Counseling Services, discussed these cultural responses. They explained to me how if a woman is raped she is often seen as a “whore or a slut … used goods,” or somehow did something to “deserve” or “invite” the violence perpetrated against her. Brown noted that often women can be the toughest on other women in this regard.
The twisted thinking becomes, they noted, if the victim had not gotten drunk, if she had not passed out, then the perpetrator would not have made the “mistake” he made.
University of South Alabama Associate Professor of Social Work Kimberly Pettway noted there are two things at play: One, there is still a prevalence of objectification of women in our culture that devalues them to being mere objects of desire.
Second, we place an obsessive emphasis on sports and athletes in our culture. It is definitely not the case with all, but some star athletes develop a sense of entitlement and being untouchable. Whether on the high school, college or pro level, this can lead to tragic consequences.
Spanish Fort and its successful football program has been here before. Deon Johnson, a highly recruited wide receiver, was accused of multiple felony sexual offenses. His legal travails came to an end in May of last year as he was granted youthful offender status in a first-degree rape case. In 2013, the year prior, Johnson was granted youthful offender status in a second-degree rape and second-degree sodomy case. However, he was acquitted of one first-degree rape charge brought by a 15-year-old victim.
As this town of about 8,000 is put under a microscope, it may be time for some serious re-evaluation. For one, what exactly is winning? Titles and trophies may come, but if we have failed at building what’s most important in our children — character — then we have all lost.
As the parent of one Spanish Fort football player I talked to stated, “There has to be an importance on making sure that our players are not just winners on the field, but also ensuring that they won’t end up as losers in life.” I so agree. One of the most important attributes any program or institution should seek to instill is accountability for one’s actions, not a sense of immunity from them.